21 May 2008

The road to Akumal Pueblo

A niggling question remained unspoken on my lips as we rode taxis around and when I saw some pictures of Akumal from 30 years ago. Who was here on Half Moon Bay, Bahia Media Luna, before? Surely not no one, in all that visual glory and fruit of the land and sea in one stunning place, a well stocked window on the world. Now it's all owned by white real estate people who come to drink or contemplate or dive or snorkel or own real estate in peace, away from the hustle and bustle of life in the US. So what happened to what it was before?

This was our view of the place when we arrived. Our place on Half Moon Bay was situated where the bay curves north, almost as far as you could get from the center of the town of Akumal, it seemed to us as we trudged back and forth in the heat, having opted not to get a car nor take cabs much. A bay, a snorkeling beach, it was all right there and quite spectacular. You can snorkel from just about anywhere if you have your own gear, and you can start from many different places (Akumal Beach in the center of town, Half Moon Bay, Yal Ku Lagoon), each with great appeal.

And just that quickly it happened: the blinders dropped, as they always do. I read some more on message boards and learned that the native (Mayan-Mexican) people had been relocated to the jungle (look to the left, across MX307 from the bay and town) -- and weren't so happy about it. Who would be happy about replaying that dreadful scenario, the one where the rich white guys come in and take everything from the brown native people all over again and leave them a patch of leveled ground in the jungle instead of their beaches brimming with palms and turtles and birds and fish? This gave me a whole different perspective on seeing everyone trudging and biking to work in the hot sun. (Just giving every able-bodied resident a great bicycle, I swear, would change their lives in a hugely positive way. On their daily march or ride from Akumal Pueblo, the swath carved out of the jungle on the other side of the highway from the bays and lagoons of the town of Akumal, they are likely to negotiate dirt and sand, wildlife, mud and/or potholes, crazy drivers, and sometimes drunk drivers. Everyone should have fenders, baskets or panniers (so they can carry their work clothes in them and not have to get them so sweaty so quickly), and bells -- or bells and horns! It would sound just like India! I know, it would be a guilty liberal's gesture, through and through. Yet also I know that's what I would want for commuting that path, if I had to do it.)

Now I'm all curious about these places. Because it seems to me you get on someone's top-ten list of island idylls and it's all over. I sure would like to know that the people who let the gringos take over Half Moon Bay in Akumal can send all their kids to college. Now half the businesses in town seem to be run by white people and from here what looks like a complicated mix of expatriate US refugees and locals who have managed to hang on or buy in. My questions were on my lips a lot; I wanted to ask the bartender at La Buena Vida, Half Moon Bay's main watering hole, whether he liked reggae, because there at the beach bar, sitting at a swing with sand under my toes, it was sounding pretty good to me (even though it is usually among my least favorite genres of music -- which for me is saying something because there aren't many entire genres I don't like).

On our vacation, our view kept swinging to the immediate: the colors of water in the bay and sky, the winds, the waves, the ocean life, the quiet, the fine, white sand. We were on vacation. But there was another side: the white real estate lady owner of the perfectly nice condo. How you can go everywhere and only speak English and just about everyone will accommodate you. Some people are truly interested in hospitality and opening doors; we met many among the service employees we encountered. But we saw lots of other expresssions, too -- especially as white people with a brown kid. I liked that part, and so did our daughter, but I noticed that we did not uniformly see the acceptance we usually get at home, regardless of whether the mixed-race double-take precedes it.

Our daughter was curious about language and whether she could communicate with the brown people she saw. She liked being immersed in mostly Spanish-speaking people but we heard many other languages as well among the visiting tourists, who come from all over the world. I have no doubt she will be fluent in at least one language some day. Yesterday I made a little movie of her at home speaking her own language. Her made-up language sounds to me a lot like the sounds of the women speaking Bengali in the orphanage. She says she can already understand Bengali. I can see how it might not take her long to learn it, or to really get Spanish. I think part of the barrier is she is still learning how to write and form thoughts in English, and learning a new and different syntax is tough while you're putting all that other stuff together. But she's got a lot of vocabulary already, more than she realizes I am sure, and a great ear and tongue.

It is an odd sensation, and I noticed this in Thailand, too, to be able to skim so lightly on the surface of a place and its people simply because of the accidental privileges of having been born where we were and being relatively healthy and relatively wealthy. I know that we are coming there and enriching the local economies with our US dollars (except that euros are the new It currency), but I see now that there's so much more to Akumal than just that bay and that beach bar.

I wonder whether it is the right thing to make a big carbon stomp-print on the planet to hurl myself onto that once-pristine shoreline, only to ignore what is really right in front of my eyes. Someone wrote recently on a message board about bringing twenty pounds of books to a school in a small town not far from Akumal. It was a funny story: when the book donors arrived at the school, the person who was supposed to receive them wasn't there. They were asked to wait to speak to the principal, and then the superintendent, of the school. People couldn't really comprehend why this white couple from the States wanted to visit this school -- did they want books, or want to give them books? Various degrees of suspicion were adopted, then abandoned; finally, after many hours of waiting, the couple were allowed to present their twenty-pound stack of paperback children's books, all in Spanish, to the little country school's principal and librarian, and all was well. It was such a small gesture, but such a meaningful one, too -- the kind of thing that can inspire a thousand more of the same gesture. Bikes and books for Akumal? Seems like almost the least we could do.

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